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Is historicity essential for religions?

January 13, 2013

One thing that I hear often from religious folks — and especially liberal religious folks — is this idea that historicity doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if x events as posed by x scripture actually happened, because the truth is in the ideas, or the story, or the metaphor, or whatever. In the inaugural post to her new blog, Leah comments:

The real turning point in my journey was the realization a couple of years ago that you are not supposed to take anything literally! That might seem obvious to folks who grew up in more moderate faiths, but for me this was revolutionary. I started my former blog as an atheist. When I began writing that I was giving religion another look, people really wanted to know, “So what do you believe?” I tried my best to answer, though I wasn’t entirely sure myself, and I doubt my answers satisfied the questioners. My answer now would be, “What does it matter?” I don’t say that to be obstinate or evasive, but really, what does it matter what or whether I believe? I don’t go to church in search of “answers.” I go for the way the rituals, symbols and narratives work on my psyche and teach me to live in a more fully human way. When I read scripture, I don’t for one moment ask myself, “Do I think this actually happened?” because it’s completely irrelevant to me whether it did or not. What I care about is whether the text speaks to me in a way that has meaning for who I want to be and how I want to live.

I actually do want to come back to her points later, because her answer actually is considerably different from the topic I’m going to now address.

But while Leah’s comments intrigued me and will be the foundation of another post, what got me to writing this post was Brad’s comments on the Atonement. And really, just the last paragraph of his article:

I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t find the question of a historical Jesus really interesting. The idea of Jesus is what we have to deal with. Our ideas about what he did and why he did it are equally important.

And from the link within that paragraph, he says:

When it comes down to it, I’m just not that interested in the historical truth of the bible. From what I understand, there is fairly good evidence that there was a man who lived in ancient Judea that fits the description of the Jesus in the gospels. Whether that man actually was born of a virgin, or turned water into wine, or healed the sick, or cast out devils, or walked on water, or raised the dead, or even was raised himself from the dead seems of fairly little consequence.

What I love about the gospels is the idea of Jesus. Dostoyevsky famously said, “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth.” This reminds me of Joseph Smith’s famous line about evicting the devil from hell and building a heaven there with the Saints — the idea of Jesus is so beautiful and right that it transcends the question of his historicity.

I don’t get this.

Now, if you’ve seen many of my posts, you should know that I don’t give too many hoots about historicity or objectivity or those things. But to me, the subjective perception of seeing the scriptural stories as fictional vs. seeing them as historical events has vastly different levels of value.

I guess part of the issue is that I don’t really get inspired by ritual (like it seems that Leah does), nor by the idea of Jesus (like it seems that Brad does). So the discussion is ultimately academic anyway.

But it seems to me that if certain events are historical, then we draw very different conclusions about life, human nature, the universe, whatever.

Like, if Jesus was God or Jesus was the Son of God, or whatever…then that means something. Maybe we don’t exactly understand what all it means, but it means something. But if it’s just an idea that Jesus is God or that Jesus is the Son of God…what does that even mean?

Chris H. had a post at Faith-Promoting Rumor about Faith as Relationship. He didn’t quite ever get to explaining what a relationship with a dead/resurrected/god guy looks like (vs his relationship with a tangible person who is capable of responding back, like his wife). But if one supposes that Jesus is historical and that certain events about his life are historical, then at least a relationship seems to be a thinkable concept, regardless of whether it seems implausible.

But for someone for whom the idea is more important…what does a relationship with an idea even look like?

I know plenty of liberal Mormons and liberal Christians who, when finding out about various problems with scriptural history, point out that historicity isn’t really the point anyway.

…but it seems to me that the scriptures as historical documents say a lot different things than the scriptures as stories.

I mean, let’s take the Book of Mormon. If that’s historical, then that’s actually people who lived, real events that happened (including Jesus coming to the Americas, for example.) But if it’s just a story, then what conclusions am I really supposed to draw from this? (I guess the liberal contingents would say that it’s not “just” a story, imbuing storytelling with majyykal powers that I just haven’t experienced yet.)

Even when there is a sort of Aesop lesson or general lesson about human nature from a scriptural story, I feel that the historicity or literality of the story has an impact.

Like, let’s take the Garden of Eden. Supposedly, the Garden narrative (and the fall from the garden) represents something. (I guess Mormons and non-LDS Christians can’t really agree on what exactly this means…whether the fall was a good and necessary thing, or a bad thing, but the differences don’t matter as much as the fact that for both groups,the fall definitely means something.)

Well…if the Fall is an actual event that happened, then I buy that it can say stuff about human nature, psychology, etc., So, this is why we act this way — because way back when, an ancestor did x, and that’s had consequences all the way down to me.

…but if the Fall is just a story, then I don’t see why I should believe it’s explanation to have merit. Yes, it might be a nice story (although again, this is academic — I am not inspired by religious stories, so I don’t even take a position that these are just great stories)…but why should I think of it as anything but?


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  1. History is important, since if you don’t know where you came from you won’t know where you’re going. However, history is a tricky thing. It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase that the history books are written by the victors. In that vein, the stories in the bible are wonderful stories but what should one make of them? For the most part, nobody even knows who wrote the Bible and there are plenty of inconsistencies to go around. So in a way, Leah has a point. Faith is mostly based on an inner knowing, otherwise it is blind faith (or the iteration of church doctrine).

  2. maddrunkgenius permalink

    “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

    It seems to me that when belief in God was a matter of factual certainty and the Bible was taken as reliable historical record, no one was saying, ‘Well, really it doesn’t matter if it’s true, or if the way the universe is described is literal or figurative.’ It’s only when all evidence contradicts or none can be found to support a religious claim that the liberal, allegorical understanding becomes an argument.

    Rituals and teachings are lovely things, and if you were Wicca or Jedi you could enjoy them just the same. But in our society, legislators don’t try to pass laws based on the Three-Fold Law or ensure that science textbooks include The Force among their alternate explanations of the inner workings of the atom.

    If you don’t think the absolution of sins and resurrection in the afterlife are important to Christianity, I guess you can say the historicity is unimportant, but then you’re saying the Council of Nicea and working definition we’ve had for 1700 years is inferior to your own.

  3. maddrunkgenius,

    Of course, the folks who tend to say that historicity doesn’t matter also tend to put things like sin and the afterlife in the same category — metaphors, but not actual things.

  4. A few quick thoughts: First, I view pretty much all religious stories, whether they have a historical basis or not, as mythology, and I mean high praise by that. A myth attains the status of a myth because it says something true about the human condition. It may have begun as “just a story,” but it endured because a significant enough number of people found meaning in it. The Eden story, like many creation myths, speaks of a lost paradise. In human life, this can represent the loss of innocence that happens through the course of growing up, the transition from a time of blissful naiveté to a time of responsibility and hardship. That’s one of many possible interpretations. Like any good myth (or poem or novel or painting), there are endless ways to look at it and derive meaning.

    Second, a myth takes on another layer of meaning in the context of ritual. The Mormon temple rites imbue the Eden story with a different meaning from just reading the accounts in Genesis and the PofGP. Similarly, taking part in the reenactment of the Last Supper in the Eucharist gives another meaning to the Gospel readings. Ritual meaning can’t necessarily be imparted with words though, because it’s experiential. Rituals don’t make much sense in the absence of their accompanying myths, and the reverse is also often the case.

    That’s a quick answer. I may have to write a full length post reply. Stay tuned!

  5. Leah,

    I guess my issue really is that I don’t get “mythology” in general. For example, I like your interpretation of the Eden story, but I can’t say that I ever saw it like that…and even now, I’m just like, “Well, ok.”

    As I said before, I wanted to make a different post addressing ritual, but based on how much of this post and this comment is me basically saying, “I don’t get x,” I don’t think I could competently write such a post, since it would basically be, “I don’t get ritual either”. But I’d love to read any future posts you have on it

  6. What I was trying to say by focusing on the ‘idea of Jesus’ rather than the particular historical details is that we don’t and can’t have any kind of objective access to the man Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago. The only thing that we can have anything to do with right now is the ideas that have persisted about him.

    In all likelihood, those ideas have changed over time. Indeed, the article I was citing in my post seems to suggest that our ideas about what Jesus’ sacrifice meant and means are profoundly influenced by the particular historical context in which they are interpreted. In medieval theology, people were apparently much more willing to accept an arbitrary heavenly tyrant to whom they were to submit. Those ideas don’t fly any more.

    I’ll readily admit that ideas about Jesus have been mobilized to some horrible ends (wars, inquisitions, witch-hunts, etc.), but alongside all of the garbage that seems to accumulate, something else seems to be shining through. There seems to be something in human nature that latches on to the stories we tell about Jesus (independent of whether or not they actually occurred) that is ennobling and can lift us above where we are.

    I’m not at all convinced or convicted that Jesus’ sacrifice means that I will literally be resurrected or redeemed in some way, but the one thing that I do have some confidence in saying is that his example (or what I understand to be his example) represents a better way to live: kindness, meekness, all the rest. It is like a distillation of all that is good in humanity, and it might well (only?) be a reflection of that good part. If so, so be it.

  7. Brad,

    When I was writing the post, I thought that there was a possibility that that was what you meant by focusing on the idea of Jesus. Still…I would think that even recognizing our limitations on objective access to information about Jesus, when considering the ideas that have persisted, we still act on those ideas that subjectively seem most likely to be true to us (even if we are mistaken).

  8. “He didn’t quite ever get to explaining what a relationship with a dead/resurrected/god guy looks like…”

    Yeah, I am still trying to figure that out. 🙂

  9. wreddyornot permalink

    For me, it all goes to what Genly Ai told Ursula K. Le Guin (see what she said in the intro to novel THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS). Essentially, experience is subjectively interpreted: truth is a matter of the imagination. As Leah says, “a significant enough number of people found [subjective, creative, I would say,] meaning in it.”

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